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Compare 2 press reports. Essentialism when people act as if things have an essence - that makes those things what they are. The essence that ‘is given to them’ constrains or generates properties.

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  • when people act as if things have an essence - that makes those things what they are.
  • The essence that ‘is given to them’ constrains or generates properties.
  • A belief in ‘essence’ makes category membership more important than similarity, categorical membership is then inductive inference.

(e.g. belief that someone is bad in essence, put in

category ‘bad’, induce they will behave badly even if

bear no resemblance to other ‘bad’ people)

nakamura wisniewski medin 1999
Nakamura, Wisniewski & Medin (1999)
  • Tested how different kinds of knowledge structure effected rule induction
  • Shows that labelling can effect the nature of the similarity perceived
  • Categorisation as conceptually imposed onto perceptual properties
  • Categorisation as top down, as a belief in ‘essence’
  • Explanation generates similarity - not the other way round
2 columns of 5 drawings (perceptual properties) were given to


Task: find a rule that could be used to classify the drawings and new examples.

[perceptual similarities!]

3 groups of participants (conceptual properties):

Group 1 told one set drawn by city children & the other set by farm children.

Group 2 done by creative & non-creative children

Group 3 done by emotionally disturbed &

emotionally normal children


Rules given

  • had properties at 2 to 3 different levels of abstraction
  • had general assertions
  • had exemplars
‘city children’

rule given: “more profiles, more elaborate, clothes in more

Detail showing pockets & buttons, hair drawn. Less

emphasis on proportion”

‘rural children’

rule given: “ draw what they see from normal life,

have overalls on & show body muscle from labour.

Drawings show more detail, one shows facial detail, another

coloured the clothes and another showed the body below

the clothes.”

Rules consisted of a general assertion coupled with an

operational definition or exemplars across levels of

abstraction to illustrate the assertion.

The different levels of description may have

been due to the lack of low-level perceptual features to

distinguish the 2 sets of drawings.

Drawings were presented one by one and people were

asked to give the rule after each exemplar.

If there was no low-level perceptual distinctions,

simple rules would not be possible and there would be a

systematic increase in multi-level descriptions.

However a multi-level description was given for the

first exemplar drawing.


Multiple-level descriptions result from a strategy of

trying to FIT ‘ideas’ to the ‘details of the actual


Categorisation is more than a simple process of matching of

properties. Included high level inclusive category descriptions

and lower level discriminating descriptions.

When features are ambiguous - labelling effects the description


e.g. same drawing, different label:

description given

Mentally healthy ‘all faces are smiling’

Non-creative‘ faces show little variation in expression’!